Could Navalny’s ‘Smart Voting’ Strategy Shake Up Russia’s Election?

MOSCOW — In an undisclosed location outside Russia, five people have been meeting regularly for months to plot out how to deliver an improbable blow to President Vladimir V. Putin in this weekend’s Russian election.

The five are allies of the imprisoned opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, all of them exiled because of the threat of lengthy jail sentences. Their strategy is to use the parliamentary election that runs from Friday to Sunday to undermine Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party — even though the authorities have barred just about all Navalny backers and other well-known opposition figures from getting on the ballot.

The idea, which Mr. Navalny calls smart voting, is to coalesce opposition-minded voters around one particular candidate running against United Russia in each of the country’s 225 electoral districts. That candidate could be a liberal, a nationalist or a Stalinist. Before Russians go to the polls, they can punch their address into the “Navalny” smartphone app, which then responds with the names of the candidates they should vote for — whether or not voters agree with those persons’ views.

“We want as many non-Kremlin-approved politicians as possible to end up in Parliaments, including regional ones,” Ruslan Shaveddinov, one of the Navalny allies working on the “smart voting” push, said in a telephone interview. “This, at any rate, creates turbulence in the system, which is very, very important to us.”

The smart voting strategy shows how an opposition movement that the Kremlin has managed to crush inside Russia in recent months is still able to influence political events from the outside. It is also a reason this weekend’s elections will come with a degree of suspense, even though an overall victory for United Russia is assured.

“If you get the name of a candidate through Smart Voting and go to the polls, you will become 1,000 percent more influential and powerful than that version of you that complains and does nothing,” Mr. Navalny wrote in a letter from prison published Wednesday, imploring his supporters to vote. “Don’t you want to try?,” he asked. “And also become a better version of yourself?”

A similar tactical voting strategy has been tried before, not always with success. Brexit opponents employed it in Britain’s 2019 parliamentary elections but failed, as the Labour Party suffered the worst defeat in decades at the hands of the Conservatives.

However, Russia is a far different case. Its nominal democracy is not free and fair, but the Kremlin still seeks the sheen of popular legitimacy by holding elections in which a stable of dull parties typically splits the opposition vote. The Navalny strategy, first deployed regionally in 2019, seeks to turn that system of “managed democracy” against Mr. Putin.

While Mr. Navalny’s personal approval rating remains low in Russia — the independent pollster Levada put it at 14 percent in June — the authorities appear spooked by his team’s push.

The Russian internet regulator has blocked access to the smart voting website and demanded that Google and Apple remove “Navalny” from their app stores. The companies have not done so, prompting fresh allegations of American interference in Russian elections. Maria V. Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, claimed without offering evidence that smart voting was affiliated with the Pentagon.

Last week, the Foreign Ministry summoned the American ambassador in Moscow, John J. Sullivan, to present what it described as “incontrovertible proof of violation of Russian law by American ‘digital giants’ in the context of the preparation and conduct of the elections.”

Grigorii Golosov, a political scientist at the European University at St. Petersburg who has studied smart voting, says the Kremlin has good reason to be nervous. Even a state-run pollster, VTsIOM, puts United Russia’s current level of support at 29 percent — down from about 40 percent ahead of the last election, in 2016.

Given that Russia’s single-mandate districts require only a simple majority to win, he said, a few additional percentage points generated by smart voting could be enough to push a challenger past United Russia in a competitive field.

To be sure, the notion of success is relative. United Russia is almost certain to retain its majority in the lower house of Parliament, the Duma, because half of the 450 seats are apportioned by party list. The ruling party is sure to get the most votes, and Russian elections are rife with fraud.

But Mr. Navalny’s allies say that even electing a few dozen new members of Parliament who oppose United Russia would be significant, because it would complicate the Kremlin’s dealings with what in recent years has been little but a rubber-stamp legislature. And they insist that in much of the country, the vote-counting process is transparent enough to make an attempt to unseat United Russia lawmakers by democratic means worthwhile.

For now, the main opposition parties in Parliament, the Communists and nationalists, have been mostly loyal to Mr. Putin. But that could change.

“If more serious political complications were to begin in Russia for some reason, then control of Parliament becomes critical,” Mr. Golosov said. “If the Kremlin weakens in the eyes of the opposition parties, they will start acting in their own interests.”

Mr. Navalny’s staff members say they spent months analyzing every federal electoral district, as well as regional and city elections that are also being held this weekend. The team of five analysts spearheading the project — Mr. Shaveddinov; Mr. Navalny’s longtime chief of staff, Leonid Volkov; and three others — have been gathering for hourslong meetings multiple times a week. Mr. Shaveddinov said they consulted polling data, dozens of regional experts and reports from the ground to determine the person best positioned to defeat the United Russia candidate in each contest.

They also point to the 2019 elections to the Moscow City Duma, in which 20 candidates picked by Mr. Navalny’s team won, diluting the number of United Russia members in the legislature from 38 to 25, out of 45 seats.

“The Kremlin is trying to roll over all of politics with concrete,” Mr. Shaveddinov said. “And still, various flowers bloom.”

Mr. Shaveddinov, who is 25, fled Russia earlier this year. He spent 2020 in what he describes as modern-day exile, detained and sent to a year of mandatory military service at a remote outpost on an island in the Arctic Ocean. Now he is abroad, hosting weekly YouTube shows with Mr. Volkov that seek to mobilize support for the smart voting strategy.

Mr. Navalny, Russia’s best-known opposition figure, was poisoned by a military-grade nerve agent last year and arrested in January upon returning to Moscow from treatment in Germany. Nationwide protests followed his return, and Russia outlawed his movement and forced his top allies to flee.

On Wednesday, the Navalny team published its 1,234 federal and regional voting recommendations, waiting until two days before the start of the election in order to prevent its picks from being removed from the ballot. For those who installed “Navalny” on their smartphones, the news arrived by push notification: “Your candidates are already in the app. Open it, look and vote!”

More than half the Duma candidates the team endorsed were Communists — even though the party’s leader, Gennadi A. Zyuganov, this year called Mr. Navalny “a traitor who arrived to set the country on fire.”

The strategy has stirred some discontent among Kremlin critics, especially in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg where several opposition candidates are running in the same district. The risk is that the Navalny team could misjudge which candidate has the most support, and end up splitting rather than consolidating the opposition vote.

In District 198, in Moscow, the Navalny team chose Anastasiya Bryukhanova, a 28-year-old manager who works on urban improvement projects. Another opposition candidate running in the same district, Marina Litvinovich, took to Twitter and Facebook to call the decision “a big mistake” and stopped short of endorsing Ms. Bryukhanova.

In an interview, Ms. Bryukhanova estimated that the smart voting endorsement could add at least seven percentage points to her result.

“This significantly increases our chances of victory,” she said.

The goal of smart voting is to motivate people like Azalia Idrisova, a 33-year-old entrepreneur in the mental health field in Moscow who said she was overwhelmed by the number of candidates and political parties on the ballot. She said she would follow the smart voting recommendations, even though she expected the election results to be falsified.

“All I can do is to go vote,” she said.

Oleg Matsnev contributed reporting.

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